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Conservation and divergence of gene families encoding components of innate immune response systems in zebrafish

Cornelia Stein1, Mario Caccamo2, Gavin Laird2 and Maria Leptin12*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute for Genetics, University of Cologne, Zuelpicher Str. 47, 50674 Cologne, Germany

2 The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Hinxton, Cambridge CB10 1HH, UK

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Genome Biology 2007, 8:R251  doi:10.1186/gb-2007-8-11-r251

Published: 27 November 2007



The zebrafish has become a widely used model to study disease resistance and immunity. Although the genes encoding many components of immune signaling pathways have been found in teleost fish, it is not clear whether all components are present or whether the complexity of the signaling mechanisms employed by mammals is similar in fish.


We searched the genomes of the zebrafish Danio rerio and two pufferfish for genes encoding components of the Toll-like receptor and interferon signaling pathways, the NLR (NACHT-domain and leucine rich repeat containing) protein family, and related proteins. We find that most of the components known in mammals are also present in fish, with clearly recognizable orthologous relationships. The class II cytokines and their receptors have diverged extensively, obscuring orthologies, but the number of receptors is similar in all species analyzed. In the family of the NLR proteins, the canonical members are conserved. We also found a conserved NACHT-domain protein with WD40 repeats that had previously not been described in mammals. Additionally, we have identified in each of the three fish a large species-specific subgroup of NLR proteins that contain a novel amino-terminal domain that is not found in mammalian genomes.


The main innate immune signaling pathways are conserved in mammals and teleost fish. Whereas the components that act downstream of the receptors are highly conserved, with orthologous sets of genes in mammals and teleosts, components that are known or assumed to interact with pathogens are more divergent and have undergone lineage-specific expansions.